In honor of the stories told today, the stories that have yet to be told, and the stories some superheroes are no longer around to tell.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an incredibly important time for us at YourCoach and we always take the time to honor those who we call “Breast Cancer Superheroes” a little extra during this month. For those who are unfamiliar with our backstory, our Founder & CEO, Marina, was inspired to become a health coach and launch YourCoach after her tumultuous journey with breast cancer.
Many of our teammates, loved ones and friends on the YourCoach team and within our extended network have been affected by breast cancer in some way. We know well that the journey through cancer is never linear and is always physically and emotionally challenging in ways some of us might never expect. But through this journey comes strength, resilience, and community. So this month, we’ve connected with several incredible health and wellness professionals and Breast Cancer Superheroes to honor those journeys; hear how this inspired their commitment to health and wellness; and collect important advice for those currently going through their breast cancer journeys.
Thank you to Andrea Anderson (MBA, NC, CHC, CLC), Nicole Giles (MSW,HWC), and Sandi Healey (B.S., NTP, ADAPT Trainer) for generously sharing their stories and insights with us. We’re inspired by you, grateful for you, and we celebrate you this month, especially!
What were your experiences throughout your cancer journey? Did this journey influence your health coaching career?
Andrea: I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 when I was 30 weeks pregnant, which had its own unique challenges. I was going through IVF, and I say that because I find that through that process, many women are so focused on what’s going on “down there” that they forget about their breasts. I actually found the lump myself and was diagnosed with stage 2b/3b breast cancer (even though I had several mammograms prior). I was immediately thrust into 8 rounds of chemo, a double mastectomy, I had infections, and trips to the ER. I ended up doing three rounds of chemo even while I was pregnant, which was controversial, and took a break to give birth to my son, who’s 8 years old now. It was a complete shit-show of “are you kidding me” moments—losing your hair, not being able to look at yourself in the mirror because of the “cancer face” and of course being so young and, like all of us women, being pushed into chemo-induced menopause.
My mom also had breast cancer—I watched her get diagnosed three times from her 30s to 40s and after her long battle, and after seeing me complete my treatments, she’s unfortunately no longer with us. Despite our diagnoses, we’re not BRCA positive. Prior to being diagnosed, I was a pretty healthy person. I ran, lifted weights, was eating well; but I did have intense stress working in the corporate world. It all clicked for me after watching the docuseries, “The Truth About Cancer.” It made me ask myself, “What does it mean when oncologists say it won’t make a difference if I eat better?” So I challenged this notion—I started eating well, using a hyperbaric oxygen tank, juicing every day. I started mastering one meal at a time and it took me nine months before I felt like I had control over something way more difficult than my cancer treatments where you’re already given a plan, but I figured out how to change my lifestyle and nutrition in a way that worked for me. And even though I was experiencing intense chemo, I stopped experiencing the side effects, which I attribute to my diet, lifestyle and routine. Out of that experience I thought, establishing a healthier lifestyle is so overcomplicated and it doesn’t need to be that way. I formalized that realization with education, starting with health coaching and then deepening that through therapeutic nutrition, I started actively coaching those with chronic illness, and then started life coaching school.
Nicole: My journey towards health coaching actually started 18 years ago when I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and I was on a year-long chemotherapy regimen. My breast cancer diagnosis 2 years ago was very difficult. It triggered many fears from my cancer journey in 2005. I knew firsthand the suffering, the change to my normal existence, and the way cancer strips you down to your essence. I did not want to be in that storm again, I was married now, and my little boy was 4 years old. At the news of my diagnosis, in my mind I was thinking “how?” and “why?” My treatment plan was aggressive chemotherapy, radiation, ovarian suppression shots, ovary removal resulting in fast tracked induced menopause. As most breast cancer patients will attest, it is a whiplash to your body’s balance, including your brain. I was having a difficult time adjusting to the way my mind and body were feeling and functioning. After all the treatments, especially the menopause, I was unknown to myself.
My doctor was sympathetic, validating, and solution-focused, but unless you’re experiencing it, that level of understanding is just out of grasp. I think all cancer patients go through a disassociation in order to manage the treatments. I wanted to return to vibrancy, vitality, and feelings of my old self. I needed help, but a traditional therapist, oncology therapist, or trauma focused therapist just didn’t feel right. I needed help figuring out where I went from here. My husband, while supportive, empathic, and eager to listen, could only help so much. I talked to my doctor at one of my appointments about becoming a health coach. He was very encouraging about how my skills as a licensed clinical social worker would translate well into the field, and the need for health coaches to assist doctors in the application of lifestyle changes and adjustment after cancer. More importantly, he encouraged me to relearn how to put my health first, not just the absence of disease, but my health in its entirety, even if I never worked professionally as a health coach. Two weeks after my ovary removal I was in my first online class, hair still growing in, still feeling vulnerable, still at the beginning of healing. My way out of the cancer the first time was loving myself and helping other people–it worked. And it worked for me again. Through the process of becoming a health coach I relearned how to make myself a priority, and that all dimensions of my health needed to be nourished and nurtured every day.
Sandi: My journey started at age 36 in 2006, with a routine exam. Fast forward, I had stage two ductile carcinoma, estrogen positive. It was rather shocking, because I felt fine and thought I was healthy. In hindsight, I see things from my past that might have caused it. Growing up, my diet was horrendous, it had gotten better, but not nearly as it should have been. I fired my first oncologist because he looked at me as a statistic and based on my treatments—I was not having that! The oncologist I stayed with was fabulous. He gave me the info he had, listened to me, and did not question my treatment decisions. I opted for no chemo and no radiation, and no tamoxifen. I did do the double mastectomy, however. I had two local recurrences and had those taken out via surgery. I have been fine ever since.
My cancer journey did inform my journey to coach. It’s why I took a nine month course into deep dive nutrition science. The experience also proved to me the power of positivity. Sometimes, as I am trying to improve myself and be successful, I do forget that lesson. Being on the side of absolutely knowing, and questioning everything, is a roller coaster we all go through. I feel my experiences can help me help others with whatever they are struggling with.
Was there anything you felt you were missing from your treatment process or that you found yourself wishing you had more of?
Andrea: I wish I had a bottom line plan, like a, “here’s what you should be eating.” We don’t need to make it complicated when you’re mastering a new routine. Who says you can’t eat the same thing every day for lunch if that helps ease the burden and overwhelm and confusion of starting a new habit? When you’re dealing with a crisis or illness, especially, you don’t need that overwhelm. I wanted someone to give me a 5 day meal plan, that’s what I do with my clients now, like an, “every day at this time you can expect to have this food and here’s where you can buy it and here’s where you can make it.” I keep it as simple as possible and once they establish that routine, we start thinking about their lifestyle and where to incorporate some of the other modalities, one little habit at a time. That wasn’t available to me, even when I went to the integrated medical center with a fantastic nutritionist.
Sandi: Yes, for sure. Any extra care like my naturopath, and acupuncture, for example, was out of pocket. It was already quite expensive considering I had missed a lot of work. So, although I am grateful that my insurance covered all my surgeries and hospital stays for my body, the support for my mind and soul was lacking.
What is one thing you’d like to share with someone who’s going through their own cancer journey?
Nicole: For all of those on a cancer journey, it can feel tremendously punishing and fraught with fear. I encourage you to seek joy in whatever form that is, be authentic to whatever emotion you’re experiencing, reach out for connection when you need it, and know that this cancer is a gift to show you, and the world, how truly amazing you are. Choose to see this challenge as a chance to see yourself in its most courageous state. You are building mental and emotional muscles and achieving victories every day. I hope you never forget what a testament to your strength this fate is.
Sandi: I would say they need to be 100% confident and sure of the people around them as they are making treatment decisions and healing. I feel a second opinion no matter what the treatment suggestions are, along with every individual sitting with those options, and really thinking about what their body and mind are telling them is vital in survival. Don’t blindly just do what the oncologist initially tells you. It may be the best choice, but you have to be 100% sure and confident in your choice. There can be no doubt.
Andrea: Allow this to be a wake-up call for how you want to live your life. See it as a reset for the priorities you want in your life. Your body can 100% heal if given all of the tools needed (which can absolutely be learned!) so embracing a fully holistic nutrition and lifestyle approach can not only help your body to process the toxins but also support your immune system to fight against cancer. We are never ‘cancer free’ but we are in remission and how we determine our go forward strategy and diet / lifestyle plans can largely impact whether our cancer recurs or not. Staying healthy and balanced is of utmost importance for our own preservation-sake. Monitor your labs, embrace an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, eat organic, nutrient-dense foods, focus on detoxing modalities and go deeper with your spiritual self – and embrace laughter, joy, sadness – grief. It’s all part of the 50:50 human experience!
A Note from Marina:
Our journeys are so personal and unique and while we all may have had the ‘same’ diagnosis, the goal should always be to treat the person, not the disease. It’s been 9 years since I was diagnosed, and while some days cancer is a fleeting thought, almost unnoticed, there are still many days where it overwhelms me and the thoughts of what could have been and what could be almost paralyze me. The work we are doing as health coaches is revolutionary, where we do look at each person as an individual with their unique goals and hopes for what the future post-diagnosis will look like.
At YourCoach, through our unique Industry Partnerships, we also support individuals going through their own cancer journeys and help them make their personal goals a reality, while sustaining new behaviors. I get asked all the time, what can we do to help? The best we, as a society, can do to support cancer superheroes is to really listen to what they are telling us and not impose our (often educated) opinions on what they should do or feel. Not all heroes wear capes. Ours are invisible.